NBA players are just people at the end of the day. Despite being athletically gifted and incredibly dedicated people, they still are subject to the same rules of life just like us.
When I was a kid, I was always the smallest around. My dad was six feet tall, and I would lament the fact I never would be six feet tall myself. I got made fun of for being slow to grow. I remember a kid looking in my sleeve in seventh grade and laughing at myself for not having armpit hair.
I tried out for about 20 travel baseball teams before eighth grade and made zero. I just wasn’t strong, fast or big enough to make a difference despite having a good baseball I.Q. The worst part is, I knew they were right to deny me. It didn’t make sense to roster a kid who could barely get the ball out of the infield, despite the fact I knew I had what it took mentally to be a good defender and baserunner.
I hated being a late bloomer, but it gave me perspective. I saw kids who shot up like weeds before I lost all my baby teeth, and I resented them. But, years later I was taller than them and it all seemed so trivial. I had to learn that people all operate on different timelines.
I see a lot of tiny Michael in Romeo Langford. I can imagine Langford is frustrated, lamenting the fact he’s had to deal with injuries as much as he has while other rookies come into the league and instantly tear it up. It must be frustrating to know that eventually your day is coming, but it just isn’t there yet, extra frustrating when certain setbacks are out of your control.
But, much like I outgrew the kids who were clearly on growth supplements, Romeo has the potential to be the late bloomer of his draft class. Maybe in ten years he’ll be laughing at the days when he was the kid with no armpit hair (metaphorically, of course).
Langford has been a “what if” player for two years now. An extremely physically gifted athlete, Langford has struggled to form a solid game outside of above-average perimeter defense and hustle. But, that isn’t entirely his fault.
In two NBA seasons, Langford has only appeared in 50 games. His injury history is well-documented, but his youth inspires dreams of a better future. He turns 22 in October despite already spending two seasons on the Celtics’ roster.
Thankfully for Langford, the Celtics are moving in a direction which prioritizes two things: controllable contracts and youth. He has both. The setbacks and room for growth have the Boston Celtics and Langford in a game of chicken, seeing if Langford will progress before his coach-turned-GM Brad Stevens will need to move on. Luckily for both sides, Langford still has a year left on his deal and a club option in 2022.
It is clear with the signing of Ime Udoka and the trade for Al Horford that the Celtics are looking to build a contender for the future around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If Langford can show improvement under Udoka, his defensive skillset could complement the Jays for years to come. But in order to be a valuable role player Langford will need to take strides on offense, specifically a 3-point shot which would make him extremely useful as a 3-and-D wing.
Looking at Langford’s 2020-2021 season, it’s best to separate it into three acts: the absence, the return and the finale.
In the Orlando bubble, Langford tore a ligament in his wrist on Sept. 22. The recovery continued into the shortened COVID season, and Langford made his debut on April 4 against the Charlotte Hornets.
His absence was at the longer end of the initial 3-6 month timeline, almost exactly six months. In addition, he dealt with COVID-19, further strengthening his case for “worst luck in the NBA.”
Romeo Langford said he still can’t smell that much after his case of COVID. He said symptoms hit him hard for about four or five days during the worst of it, it felt like a really bad flu.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) April 5, 2021
After over six months of rehabbing and dealing with injuries/illness, Langford finally stepped back on the hardwood in Boston for a limited regular season return to action.
As expected after a lengthy absence, Langford struggled initially. The rust was evident. On his first touch he stepped out of bounds in the corner for a quick turnover.
Immediately on the other end though, Langford showed what he does best when Hornets guard Devonte Graham attempted to drive on him. Sequences of defense like this show what Langford could be on the defensive end, a potential 1-4 stopper.
Graham thought he could get by Langford twice, but both times Romeo stayed in front and put a good contest on a tough mid-range jumper. Despite a bit of over-eagerness, Langford still made the quick-footed Graham’s life harder.
This sequence is a microcosm of his season: struggling offensively, but making it back on the defensive end.
An underrated aspect of Langford’s game was his offensive rebounding. One thing critics can’t knock Romeo for is his hustle. Consistently, when he saw time, he was crashing the offensive boards with reckless abandon.
Major improvement on offense would put Langford in the position to be receiving 25-30 minutes consistently, but without improving on offense he remains a situational player.
His best offensive game in the regular season came in Game 72 against the New York Knicks, where he scored a regular season high 14 points, including 4/6 shooting from the free throw line.
The big difference is his decisiveness. Watching Game 1 and Game 18 for Langford, viewers can see him getting to his spots faster with improved confidence. This is an encouraging look for someone who is essentially a rookie, as he will (hopefully) reach 82 career games played at the start of the 2021 season.
In addition to increased scoring, Langford made some nice passes against the Knicks, the league’s best defensive team. His anticipation and creativity were on display as the Celtics rested their starters.
Operating in pick-and-roll, Langford draws attention and finds the rolling Grant Williams with a perfect bounce pass. It won’t just take better shooting for Langford to gain respect offensively, but increased playmaking as well. Having to respect Langford’s passing will open up midrange pull up looks moving forward.
Overall, while Langford statistically didn’t show much growth throughout his eighteen games in the regular season, he was more confident and decisive, which bodes well moving forward.
As Jaylen Brown missed time with his own wrist injury, Langford saw increased action in the Celtics’ first round series vs. the Brooklyn Nets. Langford drew the tough task of guarding Kyrie Irving and James Harden on the perimeter, while needing to provide some offense as well.
In his four playoff games, Langford played 18, 27, 25 and 37 minutes in Games 2-5 respectively. In addition to the defensive effort, Romeo turned it up in the playoffs, especially on the offensive glass. In each of his playoff games, Langford had at least one offensive rebound. In Game 3 he had two offensive boards, six total.
His best performance offensively was Game 5, when he scored 17 on 7-of-12 shooting n 37 minutes. He also hit three 3-pointers, a career high. Each of his threes came from the corner, and two were assisted by Jayson Tatum, who was drawing 2-3 defenders most of the time.
Despite most of these threes being open looks, Langford was quick to pull the trigger and made good on half of his actual attempts (one three was a 56-foot heave). In this series, Langford flashed what his potential could be as a 3-and-D wing, especially in Game 5.
In addition to the increased offense in Game 5, Langford put the clamps on defensively... as much as possible when facing James Harden.
Despite giving up some layups, Langford was constantly on Harden, sometimes for the full length of the court. There were times Brooklyn had to screen him twice to get him to switch off Harden.
The block on Harden, one of the most deadly slashers in NBA history, shows Langford is already an above-average NBA defender. His Game 5 performance was great, but in order to keep his spot in the rotation, Langford will need more shooting like Game 5 and the same level of defensive intensity, night in and night out.
Moving forward, Langford projects to be in the rotation at the start of the 2022 season. He fits as a backup wing behind Brown and Tatum, most likely as someone to bring in for perimeter defense alongside a weaker defensive back court pairing.
Fitting him in alongside Payton Pritchard and Jaylen Brown with Tatum off the court seems like a natural fit. He won’t be expected to do much offensively, but can take the lead ball handler on the other end at times, giving Brown some rest on defense.
At the end of the day, his role is dependent on him and him only. Despite seeing bad luck come his way in his first two seasons, he needs to grow offensively to force Boston into bringing him back. If Langford can even become a consistent 30-35% three point shooter, he will be a spectacular fit alongside the Celtics’ duo of the future.